2006: Anchor away, Jennifer Mills

by Rex Hoggard

Windermere, Fla.

Jennifer Mills stepped away from her spot on the practice range at the Golden Bear Club at Keene’s Pointe earlier this month to listen to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem’s conference call

outlining the details of the Tour’s newest TV contract. It will be months before the particulars of the Tour’s agreement are sorted out, but one thing is certain: The Golf Channel – with a 15-year deal as the Tour’s exclusive cable partner – no longer is the little niche channel that could. • “Maybe they’ll give me a job,” Mills deadpans.

Of course, anyone with more than an 18-handicap interest in golf recognizes Mills as one of the original TGC anchors. For Mills, it was an 11-year gig that ended last month with the same amount of moxie she showed when she landed a job with the start-up channel in 1994.

“There was a bet brewing during our production meeting for my last ‘Golf Central.’ It was the over/under on whether I would cry during the telecast,” Mills says. “I was determined not to let them

see me cry.”

As the cameras panned away that night, she looked over at co-host Brian Hammons and “lost it.” But she’s quick to note that the cameras had faded to black before her tears began flowing.

“Those who said I would cry lost money, which was most of the newsroom,” she says.

In the male-dominated sports journalism business, Mills, 43, earned a reputation as a tireless worker. But her greatest accomplishment may have come the day she walked into Michael Whelan’s TGC office for a job interview. She was 7 months pregnant and had little experience covering golf.

“I come in in all my glory and they looked from my face to my stomach and back to my face. I started laughing,” Mills says.

Appropriately, Whelan – who was the channel’s vice president and executive producer for five years – says it was Mills’ “glow,” pregnant or otherwise, that grabbed his attention during that first encounter.

“There was something special about Jennifer that made me comfortable that she would be a major player at TGC for years to come,” Whelan says.

Like most early Golf Channel hires, Mills was something of a gamble. Although she’d played golf nearly her entire life, most of her career had been split between duties as a college basketball analyst and on assignments for The Travel Channel and other outlets.

Her first act as a TGC employee was to devour every tour’s media guide cover to cover. Mills became the channel’s answer to Cliff Clavin of “Cheers” fame. Curious by nature, with a penchant for facts – the more mundane, the better.

“A lot of people got in the door with basic 101 golf knowledge,” Whelan says. “But Jennifer would not have been there for 11 years if her golf knowledge didn’t improve dramatically. Once the lights and the cameras went on, you were exposed.”

Mills’ reputation as a perfectionist became TGC lore. Asked his most enduring memory of his longtime

co-worker, Peter Kessler recalls her almost maniacal approach to her work and her ability to complement whoever she was paired with on camera.

“She would be ruthlessly editing her work until the last second and then come running frantically down the hall,” says Kessler, another original TGC hire. “I got used to the sound of her footsteps.”

It’s not hard to trace Mills’ work ethic. Her father, Frank, an imposing man of Irish descent, spent 30 years as an FBI special agent before “retiring” to handle corporate security for Bank of America. He passed down to his three kids his love of sports and an unflagging devotion to duty.

It was tagging along with Frank that initially sparked Mills’ passion for golf. The pool at the family’s golf club in Greenville, S.C., was adjacent to the 16th hole and Frank would whistle for his daughter when he reached the tee.

“He’d let me chip and putt coming in, and I was just hooked,” says Mills, who was such a tomboy growing up she was nicknamed “Jenny the Jock.”

“Some of the best memories are with my father on the golf course.”

She may have been drawn to golf, but it was tennis and basketball that Mills planned to play in college after becoming the first woman from South Carolina to receive an appointment to West Point. But after visiting the stark New York campus, she decided against life on “The Long Gray Line.”

She instead opted for an academic scholarship to Wake Forest, where she briefly played for the women’s basketball team and, to her chagrin, was voted homecoming queen in 1984.

“I’ve been trying to live that one down for 20-something years,” Mills says. “As a female in a male-oriented business, that’s the very thing someone will fall back on and go, ‘Oh yeah, she was a homecoming queen.’ ”

Her coronation was almost an afterthought to Mills, who filmed the first half of the homecoming game with a handheld camera for WXII, the local NBC affiliate. At halftime, she ducked into the locker room, changed clothes and was ushered onto the field to receive her crown. Moments later, she was back out on the field filming the second half.

“I knew that day that this would be an interesting career,” Mills says.

Before arriving at The Golf Channel, Mills worked as a story producer for “PM Magazine,” as a reporter for the Travel Channel and as a college basketball analyst for ESPN. Her time at “PM Magazine” took her to such far-flung locales as Africa, where she worked with a scientist studying elephants, and New Zealand, where she became enamored with a sheep farmer and briefly toyed with the idea of moving Down Under.

But none of that prepared her for what awaited at the fledgling Orlando, Fla.-based network. Little name recognition made it difficult to gain access during TGC’s early days. Being a woman didn’t help.

“You’d come up to a player and say, ‘Hi, I’m with Arnold Palmer’s Golf Channel,’ ” Mills says. “If you did that, the door would open a bit.”

In retrospect, getting Tour players to talk was easy. Confidently interviewing them without sounding like a golf novice was the real challenge.

“One of the great motivators in life is fear of looking like a fool,” Mills says. “That was the most important thing, to make sure my golf knowledge was what it should be. I was a sponge the first several years.”

On April 29, 2001, however, Mills learned a much more important lesson than anything picked up in a media guide. She was in Greensboro, N.C., to cover the Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic, and after attending a Wake Forest alumni function, she unintentionally drove the wrong way down a one-way street and was pulled over by Greensboro police.

According to the (ITAL) Greensboro News & Record, (UNITAL) Mills was charged with driving while impaired. Her blood-alcohol content was .17, more than twice the state’s legal limit of .08.

“It was a low point in my life,” Mills says. “I made a life change then and there, so that it would never be an issue again.”

Mills says she has not had a drink since that incident, and friends confirm that.

In many ways, leaving The Golf Channel is an extension of that life change. After 11 years on the road, the divorced mother of two – Michael, 11, and Emily, 8 – decided golf’s endless news cycle wasn’t conducive to youth basketball games and science projects.

“I didn’t want to call home again and tell my kids that I was going to be late,” Mills says. “That’s what initially motivated my need for change.”

She also balked at signing a long-term deal with TGC, which was trying to lock down as much talent as possible on the eve of negotiations with the PGA Tour.

For the record, Mills was unemployed for five days before USA Network signed her to be a field host for its weekly “PGA Tour Sunday” show. Along with various other freelance opportunities, she figures to cover 20 to 25 events in 2006.

She also plans to make her big-screen debut this year, playing a TV golf reporter – “Talk about type-casting,” she says – in the movie “Fine Irish Whiskey,” which will be filmed this fall at Old Head Golf Links and Ballybunion in Ireland.

With her future and family squarely aligned, Mills spent the past month enjoying the slow life – golf, gardening and impromptu basketball games with Michael and Emily.

Even as she listens to details of TGC’s 15-year deal with the PGA Tour, there is not a hint of second-guessing her decision to bolt the burgeoning network. After more than a decade, she was ready for something else.

“An 11-year run at any place, in today’s TV world, is a long time. That’s 77 years in dog years,” Whelan says. “That’s a long time. That’s a lot of hard work.”

The tomboy from Greenville, S.C., wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

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